Before 9/11, German says, the FBI would have considered the idea of advancing terrorism plots just to defuse them as "laughable. But what was justified as an emergency method has become a normalized part of regular criminal-justice work." All too often, agents rely on informants who pump up criminal plans to comic-book-villain proportions. It's a tactic that's been used repeatedly to convict Muslims of being domestic Islamic terrorists, like the four men in Newburgh, New York, convicted in 2010 of a plot to shoot down military jets – a plot engineered by an informant who provided them with a fake Stinger missile.
Now this same strategy is being used to ensnare homegrown political activists. Environmental crusaders have fallen prey, including Eric McDavid, sentenced in 2008 to 20 years for conspiring to blow up a dam, even though it emerged at trial that a driving force behind the scheme was an FBI informant named "Anna." And anarchists are increasingly in the crosshairs, especially as they've become more visible with the rise of Occupy Wall Street. In a May sting at the Chicago NATO summit, three anarchists were charged with plotting to use Molotov cocktails on police stations and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home – accusations that defense attorneys call "propaganda," contending the bomb ingredients were provided by undercover agents.
"These tactics are beyond the pale for what could be seen as a legitimate anti-terrorism operation," says Green Is the New Red author Will Potter, who tracks government crackdowns on activists. "But this is how the Bureau is spending their counterterrorism money, and thousands of man-hours: creating the terrorism plots that they are ostensibly preventing."
When Connor Stevens arrived at Occupy Cleveland's tent city on October 9th, 2011, it was with the electric knowledge that he was exactly where he belonged. Wearing a secondhand sweater he'd found at the donation tent, he gazed with amazement around the encampment of 100 people, swept up in the camaraderie: Everyone here was an ally, working for a common goal. The mood was infectious. His friend Brandon Baxter from nearby Lakewood, as hyper as Stevens was introverted, was rushing around the plaza, already Occupy's most eager evangelist. "Hi, I'm Brandon!" he'd say, approaching every onlooker in sight. "Can I talk to you about Occupy Cleveland?" For the moment, Stevens was content to stand on the sidelines and beam his gaptoothed grin, taking it all in.
"From the minute he got there, Occupy consumed his life," recalls his sister Brelan. "He wanted to fix the whole world."
Stevens had long been smitten with radical ideology – inspired by the Communist Manifesto and the Black Panther Party, concerned for the plight of the poor – and he was determined to cultivate an appropriate political identity. To that end, he had recently decamped from his mom's home in the Cleveland suburb of Berea to a Christian-anarchist commune in the rough neighborhood of Detroit-Shoreway, shedding his bourgeois trappings to live as Jesus did: with few possessions, serving others, and questioning the establishment. His sister attributes Stevens' independent spirit to their parents' influence: "They're Christian, but adamant about us having our own thoughts and opinions, being aware of the world outside."
Serious and thoughtful, Stevens called himself the Bearded Bastard, projecting an air of mellow masculinity with his facial hair, flannel shirts and a pipe he smoked semi-ironically. With his Hemingway-esque image, it took people by surprise to discover that Stevens was gay (though he politely insisted on the more properly radical term "queer"). More readily apparent was that Stevens was a walking wound with an aura of sadness, who wrote poetry as his way of grappling with "the meaning of suffering." He was a welcome addition to the commune, which called itself Agape House: a condemned building with graffiti-covered walls, where residents stayed up after Bible study drunkenly discussing the works of Howard Zinn and hosting rowdy punk-rock shows. Stevens spent his days as a guerrilla gardener, coaxing greenery from the city's vacant lots as a form of populist protest. "No war but grass war," he'd say, pulling weeds.
"Connor is the gentlest, sweetest person around," says his friend Katie Steinmuller.
His demeanor hadn't always been so chill. Before dropping out of Berea High School in 10th grade, intent on "unschooling" himself, he'd founded a militant student group called Fighters for Freedom, disrupted a job fair where the Army was recruiting, and e-mailed a sergeant to call him a "fascist pig." His loathing of law enforcement had begun at age nine, when his father was arrested for touching the breasts and buttocks of two 10-year-old girls; Dad pleaded guilty, served seven months in state prison, and remains a registered sex offender. Young Connor became enraged not at his father, but at the men who had taken his daddy away. "I developed a keen hatred for authority, 'order' and especially 'law,'" he later wrote. "The simple fact that they can put you in handcuffs and haul you off was enough for me to hate them at that adorable age."
His father's conviction changed everything for the fracturing Stevens family. Connor's mother, Gail, who had been a stay-at-home mom to her five children, suddenly had to support them, and her absence while working long hours as a medical assistant further stoked Connor's fury. Police in their town of 19,000 finally decided to have a chat with his mom after fielding a complaint about 15-year-old Connor's MySpace page, where he'd posted the Unabomber's Manifesto and screeds urging readers to "KILL COPS! YEA, THE PIGS IN BLUE ARE THE FASCISTS WE HAVE TO FIGHT!!!" "Gail says Connor is not a violent person but has very strong beliefs and is immature about it," the police report noted. "She is working with him about how he comes across." He evidently listened to his mother, coming to embrace pacifism. "One of our major principles was nonviolence," says Zachy Schraufl, who shared a room with Stevens at Agape House. "We became brothers in Christ and all that shit."
It was while living at the commune and working at the anti-war kitchen Food Not Bombs that Stevens met fellow volunteer Brandon Baxter, who was hurling himself into the activist life with the energy of someone discovering a cool new band. With his bright blue eyes, earnest intensity and radical garb – camo jacket, biohazard patches, black bandanna around his neck – Baxter looked like a post-apocalyptic Boy Scout as he stood on the corner of 25th and Lorrain shouting, "Free food!" Baxter was psyched to be doing something constructive – psyched, really, just to be out of his hometown of Lakewood, an inner-ring suburb where he'd been rudderless since finishing high school. His quest to fit in somewhere had already taken one reckless turn when, wanting to connect with his German heritage, he briefly joined a neo-Nazi group. ("Brandon doesn't know anything about the world," says his sister Rachael Garcia. "He's very impressionable.") He'd been just as enthused upon realizing that his father, absent much of his childhood, was infatuated with Native American culture; Baxter had attended powwows and absorbed the culture so fully that new friends believed him to be part Indian. His newest incarnation as anarchist do-gooder suited him fine. Hearing about Occupy Cleveland's dawning days, Baxter had encouraged Stevens to check it out with him. "Let's have a revolution!" Baxter crowed.
Few places in America were in as dire need of change as Cleveland. In 2010, Forbes named it the country's most miserable city; its recession had been under way for a decade, with jobs vanishing and unemployment and homelessness skyrocketing. Stevens and Baxter were ready to be part of the solution, and they vigorously dived into Occupy. They attended study groups on horizontal decision-making and the principles of anarchism. It was a lot to absorb. "Within the first day it was so much information that my mind was boggled," Stevens told a documentary filmmaker who showed up at the tent city.
The boys' inexperience and political naiveté were instantly apparent. "They were not well-informed," says Sam Tylicki, a longtime anarchist in Cleveland. "Their hearts were in the right place, but they were new to everything. They saw the world not making sense but didn't know exactly what to do about it." Stevens and Baxter were stung to find themselves relegated to grunt work – kitchen duty, night watch. Deepening their hurt, the old-guard liberal contingent swiftly took the reins of Occupy Cleveland's discussions, rejecting the suggestions of the younger, more radical crowd. A suspicious rift opened between the two groups. Anarchists complained about Occupy's timidity, and jealously referred to its core members as the Power Circle.
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